August 15, 2007

Education Jargon Breakthrough: "Low Confidence Learner"

A math teacher in Oklahoma writes:


"At my professional development class for math teachers, I'm starting to hear the term "low confidence learners" as a euphemism for the d*mb kids.

"I think this is great! Having a euphemism for the single biggest reality that we teachers wrestle with everyday -- some kids are smarter than others -- means that at least the concept is officially thinkable. Before we had a euphemism, we had to pretend that everybody was equal in their math capabilities, which was hugely dysfunctional from a teaching standpoint in all sorts of ways, as you can easily imagine.

The philosophy behind the term "low confidence learner" is that all our students already understand everything about math, we just have to stop harshing their mellow by doubting this, and let them let all this math knowledge flow out of them on the test.

"The funny thing is that us math teachers all think we're smarter than the other teachers. (Which we are.) Of course, the other teachers boast about it: "I'm not a "math person." I never got into all that times table stuff," they're always saying with a smug look on their face.

"Well, excuse me ... How would they look at me if I said, "I'm not an "alphabet person." I never got into all that now-I-know-my-ABCs stuff." Yeah, right ... But they're totally complacent about being innumerate.

"The principal was giving one of his talks to all the teachers and he told us that 90% of 50 was 40. He must have got a funny look from somebody (thank God for the union!) because he stopped and tried to work out exactly what 90% of 50 was. It took him about 30 seconds. It made my day! Of course he makes three times what I do."


In a lot of school districts, the principles have their own union, which is kind of like baseball team managers having their own union so they can't be fired, only worse.


My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

17 comments:

Sean said...

When I was in college we had "I'm not a math major" to excuse incompetence at basic arithmetic, "I'm not an English major" to excuse the inability to form a coherent sentence, and "I'm a political science major" to claim that nobody else in the discussion was smart enough to vote.

Alas, I never did hear "I'm not an economics/accounting major" to excuse financial irresponsibility.

Thursday said...

Math teachers may be smarter than other teachers, but sadly they are often worse as teachers. This isn't surprising. A big part of teaching is getting inside the heads of your students, and math and science people tend to do a lot worse at that.

More generally, teaching tends to attract a lot of nice, friendly, charismatic, empty-headed people. They may not actually teach the students much of anything, but they do hold the classroom. And, alas, a major function of teachers these days is mere babysitting, for which this type of person is well suited.

Ian said...

> In a lot of school districts,
> the principles have their own
> union

the *principals* have their own union.

The "principal" is your "pal".

permutations give me the willies said...

I had 2 elementary education majors for roommates one year. 1 was specializing in elementary math yet somehow I (the English major or was it undeclared?) got assigned the job of divvying up our phone bill, electric bill, etc to reflect the fact that I paid 1/2 of the general household expenses because I had 1 of the 2 rooms all to myself. They of course paid 1/4 each.

Never have I felt so superior and stupid at the same time. There was approximately .0005 % of an advantage to my roomies. Fuss exponentially > Effort to Calculate the proportion. I tell you they looked at me like I was some kind of alchemist.

Any jerks out there who have to divvy up tips based on exactly how much you paid for your individual dinner? ARGH! How do I find these people?

BTW, Ian, hilarious

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure Math/Physics teachers are worse teachers per se. They are constrained by the limits imposed by the subject matter.

Empathy, patience and encouragement may help students tease more meaning out of an novel or historical analysis already intuitively familiar from life experiences, but it does not help people without abstract intuition for the hard sciences.

In fact, just by teaching, solving problems or grading students in quantitative hard sciences "low confidence learners'" feelings are hurt. Not only are unambiguous numbers everywhere to exactly quantifying correctness, but there is also an unbiased, logical and repeatable method to arrive at these numbers that hammers home the point.

One problem is that nearly everyone thinks they are intellectually in the top half of the population, everyone is presumed intellectual equals by PC dogma and we live in a feel good society that blames everyone/thing but the individual for shortcomings. The hard sciences are refreshingly free of psychological fig leaves for fragile misguided egos and a touchstone to bedrock reality.

Or stated another way - surely if there were more generalizable humanistic approaches to teaching math/physics someone, somewhere would have hit upon it and popularized it after all the kvetching about the lack of women, blacks, Hispanics, etc in the field.

JAN

agnostic said...

I love how a noun derived from the atelic verb "study" ("student") has transformed into another derived from the telic verb "learn" ("learner"). It's not even up for debate whether they're accomplishing anything -- they are *learners*, they're *learning*.

Anonymous said...

"Or stated another way - surely if there were more generalizable humanistic approaches to teaching math/physics someone, somewhere would have hit upon it and popularized it after all the kvetching about the lack of women, blacks, Hispanics, etc in the field."

The Chemistry for liberal arts majors I took in college was certainly a start. I'm gonna have to disagree with you on this, JAN. I've gone to Half Price Books and bought cheap math textbooks to improve my understanding of concepts I didn't get in class. This worked as long as I could use the method I "got" to figure out how to do it the teacher's way. And more theoretical/abstract math has to be conducive to verbal explanations that the mathematically inclined rarely offer their students. You'd be surprised at how getting into the philosophical underpinnings of a theory or some controversy surrounding it would make numbers more palatable to students with a preference for thinking verbally.

John of London said...

Actually, "low-confidence learners" is getting there. I think "low-interest learners" would be better. Didn't you psychology types go to school yourselves. It's quite obvious that most kids don't learn because they don't want to. One of many examples: I was what I believe you call an A student, but when the less "academic" kids had a craze for learning Deaf-and-Dumb sign language to use in class, they were much quicker at it than I was. I also knew boys who never mastered electricity equations who could design radio circuits.
It's obvious there's not a thing called "intelligence" that some have and some lack. What determines academic success may be called "willpower" or "application" or even "character", but it's not a measurable thing and it can't be hereditary.

Anonymous said...

"us" math teachers? "principles" unionizing? Well, you know what they say about "educators" who live in glass houses...

I wouldn't be too disdainful about the role self-confidence can play in a person's ability to grasp new concepts. One of the biggest steps forward I took in my career as a consultant in a hard science was when I told myself I was never going to fear a new software application or analytical instrument. Now, when I give training courses, I tell my students, "Remember that this software (or instrument) is here to serve you, not vice versa. It's really not that difficult." Granted, I'm training highly intelligent, highly educated people, but I believe even they maximize their learning by being filled with confidence and that self-doubt can cloud a person's ability to think clearly.

Anonymous said...

"You'd be surprised at how getting into the philosophical underpinnings of a theory or some controversy surrounding it would make numbers more palatable to students with a preference for thinking verbally."

Sounds squishy, but it's true.

I had a math teacher who was inarticulate in her native (and only) language, English. She would stutter and verbally misidentify - like an Alzheimer's patient who says "the thing over there with the thing which you make your finger in" for "cup," only she would even get most of those descriptors wrong.

Some people are articulate; others take a very sloppy attitude about using words.

Anyway, she was a verbal slob in extremis. This meant that all she could really do was silently point to the formula, point to the values, and point to the result. ESP would take care of the rest.

Yet believe it or not, some kids "got it" anyway. Sans explanation, sans teaching.

This drove me to study the math book much more intently. Unfortunately, the book exemplified the same verbal autism. Poring over the sparse and equivocal verbiage was like consulting the Oracle at Delphi.

I got through by consulting some of the other kids who could speak English competently. They "broke it down" for me. No problems after that.

Later, I got interested in philosophy and read some elementary philosophy of math. This "low confidence learner" gained confidence PDQ. Percentages and compound interest calculations are, I discovered, not terribly hard to do in one's head. Eventually I went to work for a financial management and advisory company; my job was finding errors in large broker trailing commissions. Loved that job.

ogunsiron said...

"low confidence learners" ?
I guess it means that if one just boosts their self esteem everything will just be fine. If they don't do fine it must be because the teacher is hurting their feelings .
I haven't been too impressed by math teachers, especially elementary ones. I recall that a guy I knew at church , who was a senior in math education , asked me to solve some geometry problem that his whole class couldn't solve. I solved it and, though I like math, i'm not a math genius . I was a barely starting freshman at the time. Needless to say, I wasn't very impressed by their math skills !

Anonymous said...

Anon – 11:15pm most scientists at least tacitedly acknowledge there is a sliding scale on the degree of “hardness” to various sciences with Math, Physics, Physical Chemistry, Engineering, Computer Science on one end and things like Chemistry, Biochemistry, Biology, Earth Science on the other end. Teaching the softer end of things or a shallow survey of the hard end can be improved with a greater variety of verbal skills and approaches, but is of little use on drilling down on the hard end which must be done to accomplish something useful with it.

The more people can be familiarized at any level with the hard sciences, the better for our society which increasingly needs to make decisions about issues arising out of technological progress. In my original post, I meant to comment on doing hard sciences at an intrinsically difficult, higher competence level where people often “get it” or not. I’ve hit the wall in these and other areas like competitive sports and music – no amount of verbalization, training, encouragement or desire was going to make into an Einstein, Ali or Bach.

Math and such are unique in that the wall is closer, clearer and indisputable compared to other areas of human endeavor which is why so many people probably fear, hate and marginalize it. Most humans dislike a world where everything can be unambiguously enumerated, ranked and personal failings on view for anyone smarter to view. Thankfully most of life is not like the world of the hard sciences and largely innumerate lawyers, lawyers, politicans run our world.

- JAN

Briana LeClaire said...

To "Anonymous" with the verbal slob of a math teacher -- ditto everything you said. I was an English major but I tried hard in math. (It probably had something to do with the cutest boys in my high school also being the smartest.) After an unimpressive C in high school AP calculus and a 2 on the AP test I took second semester Calculus B the first semester of my freshman year at a liberal arts college. I just couldn't let myself take first semester Calculus A -- too Puritan. It was my own fault after all; I should have learned it the first time! The class provided the coddling I needed -- thank goodness it wasn't a "weed out" course taught by a non-English speaking TA. My articulate professor filled in lots of holes, and of all my college grades I'm by far proudest of that B.

Anonymous said...

"Not only are unambiguous numbers everywhere to exactly quantifying correctness, but there is also an unbiased, logical and repeatable method to arrive at these numbers that hammers home the point."

I don't know about Chemistry and Physics but in math courses there are often several approaches to solving a problem. Yes, the answer should be the same no matter which method you use but the fact that the approach can vary means that numbers aren't completely "unambiguous".

David Davenport said...

Anon – 11:15pm most scientists at least tacitedly acknowledge there is a sliding scale on the degree of “hardness” to various sciences with Math, Physics, Physical Chemistry, Engineering, Computer Science on one end and things like Chemistry, Biochemistry, Biology, Earth Science on the other end.

That sentence shows that you are out of touch with chemistry, biochem., and biology, which are more and more rigorously mathematical. Chem. and biochemistry have been very hard sciences for a long time now.

You're just a b.s.-ing hard science wannabe. You don't know what you're talking about.

Would you like to discuss the chaotic aspects of the logistic equation, applied to modelling population growth and/or decline in the soft-seeming discipline of Ecology?

Anonymous said...

David DavenportI’m familiar interacting with bright people from a variety of backgrounds in caustic work environments. Even so, I could barely make out your position on the matter between your ad hominins and irrelevant intellectual crotch grab. Are you claiming that the hard/soft spectrum noted weakly exists or is utter B.S.? This is not a new concept and it sounds like you should not be shocked by the idea.

To clarify one point of confusion, when I speak of math and physics from a quantitative perspective I mean applied math and experimental physics. When I remark on the quantifiability of hard sciences, it’s driven by a contrast to soft sciences (and implicitly liberal arts).

One thought experiment; give a large group of Mathematicians, Biologist and even Education PhD/EdDs a difficult problem in their respective field of expertise. After the all solutions are announced, ask the following questions: (1) Rank the smartest 5 competitors and (2) Guess your own rank among the group. I submit you’ll see a pattern arising that will suggest something of hard/soft (continuous into the liberal arts) influence on people’s perceptions of self and others.

I’m aware many of the “softer sciences” like chem., biochem and biology are increasingly drawing on the tools of “harder sciences” like math, physics, engineering and computer science. However, at the highest levels it appears that this is part of two trends that highlight the dichotomy between hard/soft sciences: (1) multifunctional teams where the “hard science” experts provide the tools and techniques for the “soft science” experts with application and high-level theory or (2) “hard science” experts who rotate into the “soft sciences” to apply their skills to broader and perhaps more interesting problems.

The few true polymaths that blur the lines tend to egress from the harder fields into the softer ones over the course of time, not the reverse. I’ve seen math, physics and comp science guys go into all sorts of softer sciences to put their skills to work and have a bigger impact in a broader field. Perhaps it’s the only way for the many of the hardest science guys to pay rent, but I’ve seen comfortably situated guys do it out of frustration in the own field, intellectual curiosity and even spiritual reasons.

- JAN

David said...

Isn't the whole thing based on a questionable assumption? The assumption is that poor people wound up poor (and living in poor neighborhoods) by sheer chance. Therefore, it follows that talent is equally represented there; we merely have to devote sufficient resources to develop it.

The truth is that, over time, people are what they are for reasons, not by chance.

The hard Left says the reasons are oppression and racism. This assumes even more: that the "poor neighborhood" people are all, without exception, exceptionally talented and deserving, and thus were just plain cheated.

There may be a few Rembrandts or competent engineers in the gutter. But you will have a better rate of success at finding such people by looking elsewhere.

It's sloppy-headed sentimentalism to look for gold there - akin to combing the beach with a metal detector, a fool's task. A trillion-dollar metal detector at that.